Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
Years upon years ago, I lived across the hall from an old man who quarreled with his wife. I could hear raised voices through the thin walls.
Things may be said of the long-married, of course. But it’s the man I want to tell about. I’ve forgotten his name, if I ever knew it. He was about as nondescript a man as can be, although I remember a shock of white hair, never combed, that jutted up and up in bizarre patches, imitating a crown.
At the time, my whole adult life lay before me. His was behind him.
In the weedy backyard of our fourplex stood a shed to which the man repaired each noon. He stayed behind the closed door until the sun went down. Except for a pane of whitewashed glass above the knob, it had no windows. For six months I regarded the place. One Saturday day I asked him:
“What is it you do in there?”
He led me inside and closed the door behind. The room–closet, really–had no ventilation, no electricity, no running water. It sweltered in the day’s heat. The sun through the whitewash bathed everything in the color of old newspapers. There was a wheeled, wooden office chair and a wood counter with shelving. A thick smell of mold.
He sat in the chair and propelled himself along the uneven floor.
“Perfume,” he said.
A vast pharmacopeia of liquid-filled bottles populated the shelves. Glass of every age and shape. Blue, green, red, orange. If you squinted and blurred your sight, it looked like the futuristic cityscape of the planet Krypton.
Removing the stoppers, he decanted a few drops from one bottle into another.
“That should do it,” he said.
He sniffed and offered the result to me.
“Careful. Don’t drop it.”
I inhaled. A sickly, oily odor, hard to breathe.
“Aha,” I said.
“They don’t know how to make perfume now,” he said. “When the formula’s ready, it’ll knock ’em on their asses.”
Alone that night, I had a vision of chemists with white coats and French names in gleaming, modern laboratories. Air-conditioned laboratories with centrifuges and spectroscopes and clean rooms. I thought of my hopes and ambitions and tried to imagine ahead fifty years. I kept seeing the man with his pitiful bottles. I swore:
I will not turn into you. Whatever happens, I will not turn into you.
I think of him every so often. He comes to mind when I try to reinvent myself, about every ten years. I relax toward the image of the bottles on the shelves as it beckons. And I regret what I swore that day I went in the shed. I regret it because it laughs at me now and says:
What you resist, you become.
You can’t help but read a lot of advice about failure nowadays, which is pretty much what you’d expect in an age of too-big-to-fail. But the people I read are so young, and haven’t failed much, or tried very long.
I read that the thing to do with failure is to learn from it, which is good and right. But there’s something missing from this upwardly mobile idea, some distinctly un-American step involving grief and regret and time and emptiness and pain and death and ashes. And the swallowing of ashes. We postpone that part here, we kick our debts down the road. We tuck the ashes away in a shed with no windows, or deposit them in a hammock on Duffy’s farm.
Once, I heard the poet Robert Bly recite “Duffy’s Farm” to a roomful of men. When he was done there was a long silence. The sound of weight shifting in chairs.
A man spoke. “Maybe,” he said, “Maybe it’s healing for the poet. Redeeming for him to–”
Bly cut him off.
“Don’t ever do that,” he said. “There’s no redemption in this poem. There’s ashes in this poem. They have to be swallowed. It’s not for you to erase them.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Failure to Thrive — Big Little Wolf on a very big failure
The Music of Failure — Written by Bill Holm twenty-five years ago, this is one of the great essays in American letters. The link is to the Kindle edition ($9.99) which is the easiest way to read it. Now that there is the Kindle Cloud Reader, you don’t even need a mobile device.
Down and Out in Paris and London — George Orwell’s first work, about grinding poverty.
Poetry Credit: James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Copyright 1990 by James Wright. Wesleyan University Press.
I wonder if this post will speak more to men than to women. Do women experience achievement in the way that men do? Do their wounds over failure reside in the same place? I encourage, invite, bestir, charge, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here. This just in: you can be notified of responses to you by clicking “Replies to my comments” in the drop down menu under your remarks.